| Debasis De and wife Grosu Forentina flank Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who has been all praise for their crusade
Robbed and beaten up by African rebels in the sand dunes of the Sahara, hounded by the Sicilian Mafia, attacked by Skinheads in the Ukraine... For 41-year-old “world peace crusader” Debasis De of Sonarpur, hopping continents on foot since 1991, adversity has been lurking in every corner for years. But 12 years, 102 countries and countless kilometres on, only the smiles and the kudos linger for the city adventurer and his Romanian wife Grosu Forentina, who know they have miles to go before they sleep.
“The idea of walking across the globe occurred to me in 1990 after I joined the SOS,” recalls Debasis who had, prior to that, walked up to Gomukh and back and acted as trekking guide to foreign tourists in the Himalayas. He wrote to the United Nations through the state government, outlining the contours of his mission, and the UN responded immediately, pledging diplomatic support.
The foot soldier packed his rucksack and kicked off his novel expedition on August 15, 1991, in New Delhi, touring India extensively over the next five years. “I got tremendous response from the people everywhere I went and youngsters walked with me from time to time,” he remembers. In ’95, Debasis wrote to Boutros Boutros Ghali, then UN secretary-general, seeking permission and support to set off on his world trek, carrying the United Nations flag alongside the Indian Tricolour.
“Ghali was prompt to respond and I was granted visas gratis to many countries. Besides, Unicef, UNDP and Unesco chipped in with some financial aid from time to time, making the mission for non-violence, anti-terrorism, and the culture of peace and tolerance possible,” he says. His first stop outside the country was Nepal, followed by Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, China and Korea, followed by West Asia and Central Asia.
Debasis entered Europe through Vladivostok, in Russia, and met wife Grosu at Iasi, in eastern Romania. “She could immediately relate to my mission and was keen to join me. The only difficulty was convincing her parents, and they eventually relented,” he smiles. They would walk around 30 km daily, spending nights in police stations, schools, restaurants, camps, motels, in caves and sometimes, even in forests. They carried nothing more than a backpack each, containing personal items.
While Africa was “very tough” — they criss-crossed the Sahara four times — and “often hostile”, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Italy lifted their spirits. “So many westerners believe the Indian philosophy to be perfect and in spite of the physical hurdles and language barriers, we have more fond memories than unpleasant ones till now.”
Back home for the first time since he set out on his ambitious trek, Debasis is already planning the next leg of their excursion. “We still have to cover 94 countries, including Latin America, North America, Oceania, the rest of Africa and Asia. Our next and most important stop is Pakistan, where we will take our message of universal brotherhood,” he says.
The final frontiers of the duo’s crusade cruise will be Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 2014, with an “emphatic no” to nuclear weapons. “Before that, we hope to meet Nelson Mandela in South Africa.”